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Up in the Air

Ex-Officers Challenge Copter-Crash Damage Award

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 7/11/2001

Two former city police officers who sued over injuries they suffered in the 1997 crash of a police helicopter in North Baltimore have asked a judge to order a new trial despite being awarded more than $1 million in a jury verdict last month.

John Smith and Bobby Lawson filed the new-trial motion on June 22, nine days after the jury found in their favor in a suit stemming from the July 17, 1997, crash of the chopper on The Alameda. They claim the panel erred in finding only one of the two companies they sued liable for the accident and that the award doesn't begin to cover their costs and suffering resulting from the accident. The motion also offers a rebuke to city Circuit Court Judge Albert Matricianni, whom the officers contend withheld key information from the jury that could have affected the verdict.

Smith, the flight's aerial observer, sustained severe permanent injuries when the helicopter piloted by Lawson crashed between two parked cars while on patrol. The aircraft was disabled when a connecting rod broke loose and slammed through the engine, a malfunction the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) blamed on shoddy maintenance.

The officers' lawsuit named Helicopter Transport Services Inc. (HTSI), the Middle River-based company that provided the aircraft to the city police department and was required by contract to ensure it was "airworthy," and the T.W. Smith Engine Co. of Cincinnati, to which HTSI had sent the engine for an overhaul just before the crash. The NTSB found that T.W. Smith had over-tightened a bolt, the stress from which caused the bolt to break and sent the rod through the engine. The jury, following a two-week trial, found only T.W. Smith responsible for the accident and awarded John Smith and his wife just over $1 million dollars and Lawson $60,000.

In their 19-page motion, Smith and Lawson maintain that the jury "failed in its obligation to deliberate and to consider the evidence presented during trial." The plaintiffs cite the 75 minutes it took jury members to reach a decision (after a trial in which they were presented with about 80 exhibits and heard from some 20 witnesses) and the panel's failure to take into account harm to Smith's marriage in setting damages for his injuries.

The motion characterizes the award to Smith, who sustained a head injury, a broken back, and fractures of the pelvis, nine ribs, nose, and right elbow, among other injuries, as "insulting." Smith suffered from total amnesia for several weeks and continues to have severe memory problems, leaving him with extremely limited job prospects, says his attorney, Marc Seldin Rosen. (Smith has not worked since the accident, Rosen says. He retired form the police department on medical disability in 1998.) Smith's wife, who had been raising their two children and had never worked outside the home, was forced to go to work, Rosen says, changing the entire dynamic of their relationship, with Smith now dependent on his spouse.

The jury gave Smith $270,000 for noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering, but awarded no damages on the issue of loss of consortium, or strain placed on his marriage. (The city will receive part of any award to Smith as repayment for the amount it has spent on his medical bills, Rosen says.) "The $0 award for consortium is a strong indication of this jury's desire to achieve a speedy resolution at the expense of fairness," the motion states.

Lawson, the pilot, has not flown in a helicopter since the accident, Rosen says. He left the city police force in 1998 and now works as a deputy sheriff in Virginia.

Aside from the damages question, the motion also takes issue with the jury's clearing of HTSI. The officers argue that Judge Matricianni should have held the company liable before the case went to the jury (because HTSI did not contest that it had contracted to provide airworthy helicopters), leaving it to the panel only to consider how much the officers should receive in damages.

HTSI officials and attorneys contended at trial that the company's handling of the Baltimore helicopters complied with federal aviation regulations and that it could not be held legally responsible for T.W. Smith's faulty work. But the new-trial motion argues that the key issue isn't whether HTSI violated federal rules but whether it violated its city contract.

Matricianni did instruct jury members that if they determined the helicopter, known within the department as "Foxtrot," was not airworthy then they must hold the firm liable. But the officers claim the judge should have entered such a verdict himself, "based on the uncontroverted evidence" that the helicopter engine was defective after HTSI had it overhauled.

The officers further contend that the judge erred by not specifically instructing the jury that HTSI had a duty to maintain the helicopter and by allowing the panel to consider a federal law designed to shield large finance companies from damage claims. According to the motion, the federal law should not have been an issue because HTSI didn't just finance the helicopter, it was contractually required to supply the maintenance.

At press time, neither HTSI nor T.W. Smith had filed written responses to the June 22 motion. They have until July 11 to do so, according too plaintiffs' counsel Rosen. Lawyers for T.W. Smith, which declared bankruptcy last December and is covered by insurance, could not be reached for comment. HTSI officials did not return calls for comment.

HTSI is also tied up in lawsuits arising from the Nov. 4, 1998, Foxtrot crash that killed Flight Officer Barry Wood. The company sued the city, claiming it is owed more than $600,000 it would have received under its contract with Baltimore had the police department not grounded the helicopter unit following the fatal crash. The city countersued, arguing that the choppers under HTSI's purview were not airworthy and thus the company breached the deal. The case is scheduled to be tried in Baltimore County in December.

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